Authors: Ron Goulart
“Got her restrung, folks,” announced Goody Waggoner. “Speaking of potatoes, would you like me to do my song about how the potato bugs they got into my—”
“We already have sufficient potato songs, thank you, Goody,” Dr. Brattle told him.
“Too many,” said Harvey. “Since Marcia was trying to vamp that potato sacker with the nine-string guitar, we ended up with—”
“The fact that he was a stunning, limber, broad-shouldered devil had nothing to do with it,” said Marcia. “He knew nineteen fresh and new songs about potatoes, exactly the sort of thing the Rolling Folkmobile is supposed to be gathering.” She patted one of their recording boxes with her paw.
“A little cool-headed research, done without the benefit of hot pants, Marcia, is going to show that most of his potato ballads were created simply by substituting the word potato for other words in common everyday old songs,” said the angry Harvey. “For example, his ‘Let’s Go Frig O’Riley’s Potato’ is a rather simple-minded swipe of—”
“Please, please, we must finish up with Goody,” reminded Dr. Brattle. “Otherwise we’ll reach the Blackwatch Plantation after they close the gates for the night.”
“And how about ‘I Got The Longest Potato In The Navy’? I suppose it hasn’t occurred to you that—”
“Oh, ho!” Electro beamed at Tad and the girl. “This may be what we’re seeking.”
Tad, in a low voice, said, “A way to get inside the plantation.”
“Exactly,” said the robot. “Yonder academics obviously have access to Blackwatch Plantation. No doubt to record the off-key wailing of some wretched prisoner.”
“So if we,” said Jana, “can take their places we’ll be able to slip in there.”
Electro shifted in his chair, raising his voice. “Excuse me,” he said toward the music scholars. “I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. Since we are all intensely interested in the folk idiom I thought perhaps. . . .”
Stroking his beard, Electro scanned the packet of faxforms and permits. “It appears we’re scheduled to record a . . . left turn here, my boy.”
“I’m trying to turn left,” Tad told him. “It’s tricky with feathers all over my hands and arms.”
“You make a highly believable birdman,” said the robot. “The officials at Blackwatch Plantation will accept you without batting an eye.”
“I ought to look like Harvey Conn-Hedison, I’m decked out in his feathers.” Tad got their Rolling Folkmobile onto the roadway leading through the night to the plantation.
“We plucked the poor chap rather rapidly, I think. The appointment is for ten and we should make that with ease. When your cousin built a plucking device into me I little dreamed—”
“Who is it we’re supposed to be recording?” Jana was in the guise of the plump catwoman now.
“Ah, yes.” Electro returned to the papers he’d acquired from the stunned Dr. Brattle. “We are to capture on record the field hollers and work blues of a fellow known as Hamfixin, sent here by disgruntled neighbors and relatives. Seems every time Hamfixin, who is by way of being a habitual murderer, was brought to trial he performed one of his tunes for judge and jury and brought tears to their eyes. After a long and annoying series of acquittals his contemporaries took extra-legal steps and had him railroaded into Blackwatch. Causing, by the way, real estate values in his old neighborhood to soar.”
“Has Hamfixin seen Dr. Brattle before?” Tad was watching the dark road they were traveling along.
“This is to be his maiden encounter with the Department of Primitive And Lowdown Music. We’ll have no trouble passing muster,” Electro assured him. “The officials and guards have never laid eyes on the real Brattle and his crew before, either.”
“Do you,” asked Jana, “know the layout of the plantation?”
“My computer contact has provided me with detailed diagrams. Here, I’ll run one off for you.” He hummed, lifted his left buttock and extracted a map from a slot therein.
Taking the document, Jana studied it. “High thick walls all around, forest and mountains to the rear. Guard towers at . . . six, seven, eight . . . at eight positions around the wall. Each turret manned by a pair of robots and a set of blaster cannons.”
“Blackwatch is one of the more secure lockups in the territory,” said Electro.
“Where exactly is my father?” Tad asked.
“My contact doesn’t have that information. It is safe, however, to conjecture he’s in one of the five barracks compounds near the East wall. I’ve marked those with an X in red.”
“This X is purple,” said Jana.
Electro thumped his side. “Been having a bit of trouble with my inking gear since I revived. Purple, then.”
“What about my father?” asked the girl.
“I assume he, too, my dear, is in one of the barracks. Which one, we will have to determine when we arrive. Cousin Cosmo, Tad, will be in one of those five barracks and his dear wife, Alice, should be ensconced in one of the female barracks compounds, which are marked with a blue X.”
“Green,” corrected Jana. “There on the west side of the plantation, next to the warehouses and loading areas.”
“We may have to spring people from four separate spots, then,” said Tad.
“Once inside the walls I’ll find some way to get into the administration building and have a go at the chief computer. Find out where everyone is stored.”
Tad rubbed at his nose, twice. “What exactly do they grow at Blackwatch?”
“Drive especially carefully from here,” advised Electro. “My indicators show there’s a fairly heavy trace of it in the air now we’re nearly there.”
“A good deal of what?”
“Dreamdust,” said Electro.
“Dreamdust? That’s a hallucinatory pollen, isn’t it? It’s supposed to be illegal on this planet,” said Tad.
“To your dear Cousin Joshua and his cohorts very little is illegal, my boy. Which is why they can operate Blackwatch and grow this stuff,” said the robot. “You’ll notice on the map that over three hundred acres are given over to the cultivation of dreamdust bushes.”
“Hey!” Tad smacked the brake button with his open palm.
Several small children were playing in the road, oblivious of the approaching landvan.
“Keep going,” said Electro.
“I can’t run over those kids.”
“There’s nothing in the road,” the robot said. “You’re having a mild hallucination from the dreamdust in the air.”
“He’s right, Tad,” said Jana. “I don’t see any kids. Just be careful not to run into any of those grazing shugs.”
“There are no shugs either, my dear.” Electro turned in his seat to pat the girl on the knee with a metal hand.
Tad shook his head, started the van moving ahead. The children faded as they approached. “This is going to be a handicap, not being able to tell what’s real.”
“A dilemma which has given pause to many a philosopher.” He lifted up his left hand. The tip of his thumb popped open and a small needle rose up. “I’d best give you both injections to counteract the dust Won’t hurt a bit.”
“Ouch,” said Tad when the needle found his flesh.
“Sorry, I’m not used to inoculating feathered patients. You next, Jana.”
In less than five minutes they were pulling up before the high stone walls of the Blackwatch Plantation. Thick solid metal gates kept them out.
Globes of light came floating down from the towers on each side of the gates—a dozen globes, which came to hover over the landvan, shedding an intense yellow glow onto the Rolling Folkmobile and its occupants.
“Nature of business?” The inquiring voice came from one of the towers and was vastly amplified.
Electro pushed his disguised head out into the night. “Yes, yes, you’re expecting us and there’s no need for all this fuss,” he said. “I’m Dr. Martin G. Brattle, head of the Department of Primitive and Lowdown Music at Esmeralda University.”
“Throw your permits and passes to the left of your vehicle.”
“At least they didn’t ask for a ten centime piece,” said Jana while Electro passed the documents to Tad to toss out.
The packet had barely settled in the dusty road when a sharp-nosed missile came whistling down from the right-hand tower. It circled low over the flung papers, seemed to be taking pictures and sniffing.
“Relatively unsophisticated scanning bug,” remarked Electro.
“Papers are in order. You will proceed onto the plantation grounds. You will stop on the yellow section of parking area in front of the Administration Building. Do not leave your vehicle until told to. Doing so will result in harm to your person.” Tad cleared his throat, tensed. The gates, silently, swung open. The landvan went rolling inside, the globes of light following.
As the van stopped on the designated area a door in the squat white stone Administration Building opened. Five men came out to stand on the broad stone staircase and watch the arrival.
“Could I still be having hallucinations?” Tad asked the robot.
“Because I see Hohl, the overseer from Foghill, standing over there.”
Electro nodded. “Be calm, it is he. The lout has no reason to suspect us, our disguises are nigh perfect.”
“Let’s hope the same goes for my husband,” said Jana.
Tad asked, “Your husband?”
“That’s him on the second step from the top,” she said.
“He’s sort of old,” said Tad.
Jana’s husband was a tall man, lean and not handsome. He was in his middle thirties, with thinning dark hair and wearing a gray cloak.
“Older than me. I already told you that.”
“Nitwit,” muttered Electro.
“Talking about my computer contact,” said the robot. “He neglected to tell me Hohl and Taine had shown up here at Blackwatch.”
“They may tumble to us.”
“Admittedly they are here in anticipation of our arrival,” said Electro, “since they’ve obviously figured out where it is we’ve been aiming for. However, I’m confident our mutual gift for mimicry will serve . . . here we go.”
A chubby man in a nubby cloak had detached himself from the stairway group and was coming across the yellow flagstone to their landvan. “This is a real honor,” he said, chuckling. “I’m Supervisor Bunner, in charge of the entire plantation . . . Look out for that seagull!” He ducked quickly, swatting at the night air.
“Dreamdust,” muttered Electro.
“Please step out of your van, friends,” invited Bunner. “I can’t tell you how pleased I am to greet visitors of your standing. Dr. Brattle, I’ve poured over your books and lecturdiscs. You are, sir, a brilliant, brilliant man. I must remark, though, you don’t look in person as you do on your pixdiscs.”
Climbing out of the cab, Electro said, “Electronic distortion. I’m often told I look smaller and less plump on the screen.”
“I’ve read every one of your books, we have them in the library here. And since the library is off limits to all the miserable wretches who work on the plantation the books are all in really nice shape.” He shook his plump head from side to side. “I have to admit I’m awful at remembering titles. What was the name of that book of yours I liked so much?”
Electro said, “Like most of my readers you probably enjoyed
Sea Chanties: Form And Function.
The supervisor blinked. “Why, I don’t remember that title at all.”
Jana eased out of the landvan. “He must be thinking of
Folk Songs, Work Songs And The Growth Of The Barnum Hegemony,
“Yes, that’s it.” Bunner clapped his hands together. “I can’t express how much pleasure that book gave me. You see, I love to read in bed and since I’ve had my chambers sound-proofed so I can’t hear the pitiful moans and groans of our field hands I’m able to read a good deal more than previously. What are the titles of some of your other books, Dr. Brattle?”
“The favorites,” supplied Jana, “are usually
Blues Songs, Yodels, Random Whistling And Man’s Fate, Murder Ballads And The Development Of Intergalactic Trade
Polkas: Interaction And Transcendence.
“Yes, exactly. I’ve read every one of those, doctor, and was simply ravaged by your intellect.”
“Most people are,” acknowledged Electro. “Now if you would be so kind as to escort us to Mr. Hamfixin.”
Tad had left the cab and moved carefully around to Jana’s side. “How’d you know those titles?”
“I’m well-read,” she answered into his ear.
Tad turned to the robot. “We’re behind schedule, doctor. We’re never going to gather enough mat—”
“Who’s that knock-kneed mooncalf? I know that dopey walk!” Hohl left the Administration Building steps to come bounding toward them.
“Here, here, Mr. Hohl,” cautioned the supervisor. “I won’t have you threatening people of the standing of Dr. Brattle or—”
“Stow it in your gooz, lardbutt!” Hohl halted a few feet from Tad, scrutinizing him through narrowed eyes. “Birdman, huh? You’re a pretty snerfy looking birdman. Those feathers look like plaz to me.”
“Who is this oaf?” Tad asked the supervisior in what he hoped was a fair imitation of Harvey Conn-Hedison’s voice. “Really, Supervisor Bunner, we wouldn’t have come all this way to your ragtag plantation had we known we’d be assaulted by oafish—”
“I’ll assault your biffy, you slurpnosed goober!” Hohl raised a fist, shook it.
“Mr. Hohl, please.” The supervisor, blushing, grabbed his arm and tugged him back from Tad. “I’ll thank you to leave my guests alone.”
“You scatter-brain!” bellowed Hohl. “Aren’t we here because we figure Electro and Tad Rhymer and that beanpole snerd’s sleep-around wife are due here any minute? Then in pops a big guy and a wimpy guy and a bimbo who—”
“I’ve viewed many a canned lecture by the doctor, Hohl! I’d know him anywhere, once I take the electronic distortion factor into consideration. They’ll be no further chatter about this matter in front of my respected guests.”
“Somebody’s going to distort your gob if . . . Oh, dear. Have I been ranting like an utter fool again?” Hohl pressed a hand to his face, massaging his cheeks. “It’s my darned old allergies again, plus the nerfing dreamdust in the air. I sincerely apologize to one and all.”
“Well you should.” Supervisor Bunner brushed at Hohl’s shoulders. “Shoo those seagulls off yourself, too, they’re very unsightly.”